In this essay I intend to explore the role of marketing within a sociological view and how society and consumption has had an effect on how consumers view their selves and their acts of consumption. I am going to base these findings on the consumption of food and use the knowledge of theorists; Marx, Weber and Bourdieu to help me do so.

Consumption trends and patterns alter constantly as social and economic changes occur. Consumption patterns can be taken back to the 1900’s. Many of the institutions that sustain and promote mass consumption first took shape near the end of the 19th century. Department stores appeared in the big cities of England, France, and the United States, creating comfortable semi-public spaces in which consumers could contemplate many different purchases. New packaging technologies were developed, allowing distribution of goods in bags, cans, and bottles. This technological advance made it possible for the first time to create nationally and internationally known “brand names” in the marketing of foods, beverages, cosmetics, and other goods.

Look back into history and you will find patterns of consumption very different from those that exist today. Go back a few centuries, and almost no one in any country spent a significant amount money or time on shopping for goods or luxuries. Centuries ago the vast majority of each country’s population lived in rural areas and worked in agriculture. Their clothing and household possessions were extremely limited and were typically made by household members or by people from the same village. Fashions, technological change, and social pressure did not drive people constantly to make new purchases; rather, individual material goods were used, with repairs if needed, for decades. Major items such as winter coats were expected to last a lifetime and more and were often passed from one generation to the next.

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The Industrial Revolution clearly transformed production and consumption. Large-scale industrialization began in the British textile industry; the amount of cotton used in that industry rose from less than �3 million in 1760 to more than �360 million annually in the 1830s. (Eds, Cutler J.)

In the early 19th century, roughly two-thirds of the increased output was sold to other countries around the world. Much of it went to less developed areas such as India, which was rapidly becoming a British colony,

There were limits, however, to the possibility of growth through expansion into foreign markets. As other industries followed textiles, and other countries followed Britain’s example of industrialization, much of the growing output was sold at home or to other relatively developed countries. Thus mass production required mass consumption. Over the course of the 19th century, both the growing middle class and the working class became consuming classes as well.

It is therefore obvious that the social world is ever-changing. Some argue it is growing; others say it is shrinking. Theorists developed their own ideas as an attempt to understand societal changes. Some early sociological theorists; Marx, Weber, and Bourdieu, were disturbed by the social processes they believed to be driving the change. When applied to the consumption of food each of the theorists have differing views on how food consumption has a direct impact or relation to class, views and hierarchical positioning.

Karl Marx is best known as a philosopher and a revolutionary communist whose works inspired the foundation of many communist regimes in the twentieth century. He is famously quoted saying

“The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range.”

Marx was concerned with how society and the economy was turning and how profits should not be prioritised before the workers.

He was concerned that factory bosses knew that keeping food cheap helps keep wages low. The hard labour meant workers have to arrive at work full and satisfied with food. Cheapening food means that bosses can drive wages down towards a minimum sustenance level.

But cheap food isn’t always good food. In Marx’s day, cheap workers’ bread contained stone dust, chalk, pearl ashes and soap. The modern equivalent of this is food colourings and other additives. The artificial flavour industry took off in the 1950s and allowed for tiny amounts of odour and colour to be attached to foods. We can often tell whether food is fresh or stale by its colour, odour or taste. But artificial additives disguise this. The modern equivalent to the factory owners’ bad diet is our cheap, mass-produced fast food.

Another theorist is Max Weber. His ideas and research on bureaucracy and on the rationalization process of society formulated the thesis of McDonalization from George Ritzer. Weber was worried the increasing numbers of bureaucracies would increase rational principles and that it would eventually dominate a number of sectors in society. Weber expected a society of people trapped in a chain of rational structures, which would anticipate a movement from one rational system to another from educational institutions to workplaces, from recreational settings to home; and that the people would eventually become nothing more than robots that went from one structure to another.

For example, in a restaurant, workers assemble food for their customers. Customers want, and are expected, to acquire and consume their meals efficiently. The drive-in window is a prime example of efficiency for the customer and employees because it is a highly well-organized mean for distribution of food. The effectiveness of one party helps maintain that other will behave in a similar manner. This follows Weber’s “Formal Rationality”, which establishes the consumer wanting to get the end product in the easiest most economical manner.

Nearly every aspect of today’s society has been affected by McDonaldization including the restaurant business, education, work, healthcare, travel, leisure, dieting, politics and the family (Ritzer, 1996, 1). In our society, people like to have things go as quickly and as smoothly as possible, but they do not want to find out the fastest way themselves. Instead, people like to have a system that has already been used and that they know works. The fast food industry is very streamlined, because hamburgers are the simplest food there is to make, they are simple to make and to eat.

Most of the food is also prepared so one can eat it with their hands, thereby reducing the need for utensils. In the process of McDonaldization, consumers are forced to do a good deal of work as well. They have to stand on line, carry their own food, and throw out the garbage. This is not as efficient for the consumer, but it saves time for the workers. Education, health care, and the work place are all becoming McDonaldalized in order to become more efficient. Efficiency in McDonaldization has streamlined many processes, simplified goods and services, and forces the consumer to do work as well.

According to another theorist Bourdieu; tastes in food, culture and presentation are indicators of class because trends in their consumption seemingly correlate with an individual’s fit in society. Bourdieu himself believes class distinction and preferences are noticed in the everyday choices we make such as our purchasing of furniture, clothing or cooking.

Bourdieu believes that the strongest and most obvious mark of a child’s learning would probably be in the tastes of food. Bourdieu thinks that meals served on special occasions are “an interesting indicator of the mode of self-presentation adopted in ‘showing off’ a life-style” (Bourdieu, 1990) which adds to the idea of consumers creating their ideal self. The idea is that their likes and dislikes should mirror their class. Children of a lower class would predicatively eat “heavy, fatty fattening foods, which are also cheap” as opposed to more luxury food chosen by those of a higher class. Demonstrations of the consumption of luxury food reveal a distinction among the social classes.

When analysing the consumption of food many of us think that food can be a reflection of an ideal life and mirrors the perfect family and even marks family roles and relationships in a material form (Bourdieu, 1990; Douglas, 1975; Beardsworth, Keil, 1996). Branded food products are an increasingly influential factor when families shop and try to create their perfect family identities (Moore et al.2002). Even fast-food, eating alone, eating in the car and on the run indicate the increasing shares of food consumption (Fetto, 2001; Gardyn, 2002; Hagendorf, 1998): nearly half of food expenditures in US households occurs outside the home (Gardyn, 2002:34-5).

In conclusion it is obvious that food meanings and practices contribute to family identity and domestic life. A reason for producing meals within household groups is to construct home and family around our ideal selves and consumption practices (DeVault, 1991). Moreover, ‘proper meals’ help maintain and reinforce perfect family ideology. Family food consumption socializes moral values, duties, and valued experiences (Gullestad, 1995). At the same time, commercial socialization is occurring in the media subconsciously influencing us all who are striving for our ideal selves.

For instance, food advertisers, women’s magazines, and cookbooks reproduce a message that providing a ‘proper’ meal is the key for women to a successful home life (Warde, 1997). Whether this is a good way to live our lives is questionable. Whilst this ideal self or family norm may not be reality, if we are happy living like this and we are being fed what we enjoy both with food and any other material goods by companies targeting us to make a profit; then should we necessarily change our consumption habits?


Beardsworth, A. and Keil, T (1996) ‘Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society’, Routledge

Bourdieu, P. (1990) ‘Structures, habits, practices, The logic of practice (pp. 52-79)’

Cohen and Kennedy (2007) ‘global sociology 2nd ed’, Palgrave Macmillan

Desmond, J. (2002) ‘consuming behaviour’, Palgrave Macmillan

Cutler J. Cleveland. (2007) ‘Consumer society In: Encyclopedia of Earth’

Fetto, J. (2001) ‘Junk-Food Nation’, American Demographics Page 25.

Gardyn, R. (2002) ‘What’s Cooking’, American Demographics Page 28-35.

Gullestad, M. (1995) ‘The Morality of Consumption’, page 97-107

Ritzer, G. (2004) ‘The McDonaldization of Society (4th Ed)’

Valentine, G. (1999) ‘Eating In: Home, Consumption, and Identity’, page 491-524.

Warde, A. (1997) Consumption, Food and Taste: Culinary Antinomies and Commodity Culture.


DeVault, Marjorie L. (1991) Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Hagendorf, Jennifer (1998) ‘Fast Food Gets Faster’, Computer Reseller News 797.


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